Early in the second game of his match against Anthony Ginting, B Sai Praneeth started to make unforced errors while all he had to do was to play percentage strokes. It appeared the 27-year-old was in a hurry and falling behind Ginting’s pace.
It was not surprising. The match was being played at a fanatic pace, unlikely the earlier match, one with long rallies, on the same court between Kento Momota and Sai Praneeth’s compatriot HS Prannoy.
Even before the match had started, the commentators had wondered whether Sai Praneeth could cope with Ginting’s speed of play. The Indonesian had managed to breach even the monk-like precision and clam of Momota twice last year with his sheer pace.
But Sai Praneeth was prepared for not just the unrelentless pace but the mental adjustment required to go for his shots as well. Instead of conserving energy and outlasting his opponent, Sai Praneeth went a step further and was actively looking for winners throughout the match. In the end, he would take home the match 21-19, 21-13.
After the initial exchanges where Sai Praneeth struggled to come to terms with the pace and was flat footed by Ginting, the 2017 Singapore Open champion grabbed the game by the scruff of its neck. He injected his own aggressive variations of cross-court half smashes while intercepting the shuttle early around his head and targetting the opponent’s backhand with pin-point smashes.
The sliced drop to Ginting’s backhand was another weapon that Sai Praneeth used effectively as he took a 13-11 lead. The situation began to unravel again from there for the Indian as the eighth seed found a different gear and successfully pushed for points.
In the past, Sai Praneeth has been guilty of dropping his guard and let the opponent ease through. But on Thursday, the world No 19 not only hung around but showed the maturity to turn the table on his opponent the minute he got a slight opportunity to get his foot in.
He attacked Ginting’s short serves to earn quick points and then engaged the Indonesian in rallies over the last two points to force him to make an error.
“In the first game, it was going neck and neck,” Sai Praneeth said. “I made two-three mistakes but the rallies were going very fast. But I managed to pull through.”
The Indian was in the driver’s seat at the start of the second game, taking a 6-2 lead before his level inexplicably dropped. He lost nine of the next 11 points because of silly errors. But it was clear that the Indian had a game plan and he executed that well after the mid-game interval.
He pounced on every opportunity to finish the rally, even lunging towards the net on a couple of occasions when the opponent looped a returned. Apart from giving Sai Praneeth the points, it also put added pressure on Ginting to play sharper and faster. This forced Ginting into committing unforced errors and as a result, he conceded 12 of the last 14 points.
“I was down in the second game, but once I covered the lead, I thought this is the best chance ever,” he said. “I could see he was under pressure, he was making mistakes. I just kept on building the pressure.”
To his credit, he made Ginting’s defence look ordinary with the quality of his down-the-line and cross-court smashes and mixed things up beautifully to not allow his opponent to settle down in any sort of rhythm in the second game.
The straight games win over Ginting means that Sai Praneeth hasn’t dropped a game into the tournament so far and will next face Asian Games gold medallist Jonatan Christie, who defeated Jan O Jorgensen of Denmark 21-12, 21-16, for a spot in the semi-final.
The win also helps Sai Praneeth improve his head-to-head record over against Ginting to 3-2. But it was the his approach in the the match and the run in the tournament that shows that the 27-year-old is more confident and at ease with himself.
It wasn’t the case two years ago. Sai Praneeth was perhaps in the form of his life, having won the Singapore Open. But he was upset with the tough draw at the World Championship in Glasgow and despite playing well had been knocked out at the round of 16 stage.
Sai Praneeth has come a long way since that day. Now the draw does not bother him and his improved game has given more confidence.
“The draw was not too tough and not too easy and I knew if I played well I had a chance,” he said. “Before this tournament, I had played some good matches in Japan and Thailand and I was a bit confident.”
If he could carry that same confidence against Christie in the quarter-finals, India can surely hope of ending the 36-year wait for a men’s singles medal (Prakash Padukone won the only men’s singles medal back in 1983) at the World Championship from the only man left in the draw after the defeat of his more illustrious compatriots Kidambi Srikanth and HS Prannoy.